The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making Sense of Art, Part I

The View From the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 2: Making Sense of Art

Art theories are good. Art theories are impressive. But hey, wait a minute – it’s the artists who do the work! Most every artist I’ve known is far more comfortable grappling with the difficulty of making art than with the seeming futility of talking about it, writes Orland. I agree! That’s why I challenged myself to start this blog and delve into dozens of books and discussions on art theory – I needed to understand the world of fine art a little better so I could comprehend my role in that world.

Of course, there’s the time-worn adage that art should speak for itself. While that’s important, I think there’s something more. For instance, I could limit my knowledge of my heritage to what I experience with only my living family members. But, there’s so much more to learn from previous generations. That knowledge gives me perspective about who I am. And, that’s what art theory does for me as well, it makes sense of my art by placing it in a larger context.

So, Orland tells us, while we absorb art through our senses, we think about art [or interpret art] in words. Oddly enough, we’ve been sensing and talking about art for millennia and we still can’t find a clear and concise definition for “art!” As Orland observes, The real boundaries of art are defined by the collective range of our minds, not by the collected works in anthologies. So, how will this author help us make sense of art?

This much we do know: long before there were art departments or art critics or art historians or art museums, there was simply art. Period. He goes on to say that it’s more useful to the artist to ask why art should be defined at all. That’s a good point. After all, I won’t stop making what I consider to be art just because someone assigns a definition that doesn’t apply to my work. Nevertheless, there exists a consciousness about art: we sense the meaning of the world unconsciously and capture that meaning through our art – and then we have to wait for our intellect to understand what we already knew.

Artists are always on the hook. The moment we achieve public notice we are asked to explain our motivations and our work within the context and lexicon of the present art scene. Galleries, museums, critics, and special exhibitions all require this of us. For instance, yesterday I was interviewed by an art magazine and had to explain myself and my work. It’s not enough that readers will see pictures of my work, they need my explanations as well.

Orland puts it this way: the moment you achieve even a modicum of success you will be asked to explain your work, and in the course of preparing for that eventuality you may well learn something about your art – and yourself – along the way:

Where, then, does your vision of the world reside?

What part of your art is drawn from history?

What part is prophecy?

What part is grounded in fact?

What part takes wing in fantasy?

These are great questions and I’d rather answer them myself than have others answer them for me.

How about you?

Tomorrow, I’ll finish the other half of this chapter.


Linda Roth said...

Art is whatever anybody want's it to be. The Impressionists breaking from the confines of the Salon made it so. From there on all hell broke loose with this movement and that following their rebellion.(And that's the white man's history). Now anything goes and however it goes, it's all good. The best part is it's being made. I do wish, however, there was more encouragement in the public schools, more understanding that art plays a part in many professions and offers broader career opportunities than what's offered in the fine art curriculums. This reads like I'd like the book you're reading.

-Don said...

Your analogy about family, heritage and perspective and how it relates to art theory is excellent. I'll definitely keep that one in mind as I grapple with the seeming futility of talking about art.

What a perfect chapter for you to be reading at the same time you're doing your interview. I'll bet you even sound like you know what you're talking about in your interview. I can't wait to read it.

As for your questions, I'll treat them as rhetorical for now. But, I will use them as food for thought. Thanks.


Celeste Bergin said...

Kathy, great post--!
I painted over a large graphic painting recently. The painting I was going to cover up was predominately written words. I painted a big women's red coat (on a hanger) over the words but then I realized it was looking cool to allow some words to show through. It simply looked cool to me--that's it. Later, when I showed the work online one commenter said: "this reminds me how often I've had to adopt someone else's narrative and had to wear it as it if were mine.". Whoa! *I* said that with my red coat/showing through words?
I really liked that interpretation--especially because if I were to accept totally, I'd be "wearing it like a coat" (falsely) too.
It all is what you think it is...and that is the interesting thing! The viewer completes the work.

Mark Sheeky said...

I'm still thinking about these posts... (!)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm following. I totally agree that sometimes we have to wait for our intellect to understand what we already know. My question is always "How did we already know?"

Unknown said...

Hi L.W. - That's a good analogy, thank you. I agree with you about the public schools, and also about people in general. There are far too many parents that don't encourage and nurture creativity in their children.

Hi Don - thanks! I wish I did know what I'm talking about :-)

Hi Celeste - wow, that's a great story and very relevant to this discussion. I love your conclusion: "the viewer completes the work." Thank you!

Hi Mark - Great! Can't wait to learn about your thoughts.

Hi Hallie - good question! I'll have to think about that.

Anonymous said...

Kathy- This discussion is a bit over my head, but I'm here.
I really liked Celeste's comment about her painting. Cool!

Anonymous said...

I can identify with the problem of attempting to define myself as I'm trying to find myself. I find it so odd that people need to know what kind of artist I/we are. As if they would know exactly what my work is all about as soon as I tell them I'm and neo-fluid-cubist-abstract-retro-realist. You can just hear the answer: "oh, uh-huh...".

Really, I liked Hallie's answer which is a question :)

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - Thanks for reading along; I doubt that anything is over your head, though :-)

Hi Peggy - great descriptors!!